China central bank injects 267 billion yuan in targeted loans as broader easing appears on hold

Headquarters of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), the central bank, is pictured in Beijing, China . (Reuters pic)

SHANGHAI: China’s central bank extended 267.4 billion yuan (US$39.8 billion) to some commercial banks on Wednesday via its targeted medium-term lending facility (TMLF) as it looks to provide struggling smaller business with a steady stream of affordable financing.

The injection of funds comes amid expectations that the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has put broader policy easing measures on hold after recent signs of improvement in the world’s second-largest economy.

The PBOC said the one-year interest rate on the TMLF was 3.15%, the same as the previous operation, and 15 basis points lower than medium-term lending facility (MLF) loans.

Traders had speculated last week that the central bank was preparing to use the new loan programme for a second time, after debuting it in December. The scheme was tailored to get more funding to cash-strapped smaller companies, as Chinese banks tend to prefer lending to state-backed firms.

Policy insiders have told Reuters that the PBOC is likely to pause to assess economic conditions before making any more sweeping policy moves such as further cuts in banks’ reserve requirement ratios (RRR). It had cut RRR five times over the past year, most recently in January.

The central bank is also worried that pumping too much cash into the economy could reignite bubbles over time, the policy insiders said, and wants to save some of its policy ammunition.

But they stressed the PBOC’s easing bias remains unchanged, and noted that fiscal stimulus such as tax cuts are only beginning to work their way through the economy, providing continued policy support in various forms.

The latest TMLF “matches the central bank’s recent attitude that it does not want the market to speculate on further monetary policy easing,” Stephen Chiu, FX and rates strategist at China Construction Bank (Asia) in Hong Kong, said in a note.

Expectations of further stimulus in China have shifted markedly since the release of better-than-expected first-quarter GDP and March economic data last week.

The data added to optimism that the economy may be starting to stabilise after growth slowed to a near 30-year low in 2018, though analysts cautioned it was too early to tell if a turnaround can be sustained.

Recent comments from top policymaking bodies that China should fine-tune monetary policy in a pre-emptive way have reinforced views that authorities may be switching to a more measured wait-and-see stand.

Fears of less stimulus have triggered a sharp reversal in the country’s rallying stock markets, which are highly sensitive to liquidity changes.

“As today’s TMLF already represents the TMLF for the whole of Q2, the market remains worried about reduced easing or even tightening,” Frances Cheung, head of macro strategy for Asia at Westpac in Singapore said.

But “the macro backdrop does not justify a shift in the monetary policy stance to the hawkish side yet, in our view, as after all, there are only preliminary signs of a bottoming out in economic activities,” she added.

Uncertainty also remains over what the PBOC will do when MLFs mature in coming months, Cheung said. A total of 819 billion yuan worth of such loans are set to expire in May and June.

The PBOC injected 200 billion yuan to financial institutions via its one-year MLF last week, compared with a maturity of 366.5 billion yuan.

In a separate statement, the central bank said it had skipped reverse repo operations on Wednesday, when 160 billion yuan worth of seven-day reverse repo expired. That left a daily net injection of 107.4 billion yuan into the financial system.

The TMLF will mature in one year but the banks will be allowed to roll it over for two more years, the central bank said in a statement on its website.